I remember the first time I “danced” with a boy. It was middle school, and all the girls were lined up against one wall, staring at the fidgeting wall of boys directly across from us. Many of us were wearing a bra for the first special occasion, and were determined, under the disco ball and the sound of Sisqo, to prove that we were women deserving of them.
Every minute or so, a boy would walk over, and everyone’s heart would stop. If he was cute, we would hold our breath. A lucky girl among us would be confronted by an outstretched hand, and the two of them would go off together onto the dance floor while the rest of us giggled. It felt as if she had been chosen for something great, that she would get to know what it meant to hold onto a boy, maybe even to make out. When it was my turn, I was terrified. I didn’t even know how to dance!
But as it turned out, there was nothing to “know.” The boy all but glued his back to mine and ground against me vaguely to the beat of a Ja Rule song. Sometimes we could feel if the boys got excited, and the more courageous among them would put their hands on parts of our bodies we were still very uncomfortable with. More than once, a chaperone had to come over and separate a couple of pre-teens whose “grinding” had gotten out of control.
Yet even in their premature lustiness, these boys were not malicious. They were dancing in the only way we’d learned how, from watching the videos on MTV that played in loops when we got off the school bus. We saw the dancing video girls, whose only job was to wear ever-smaller bits of fabric and shake their asses at the camera. We saw the macho male singers who were surrounded by these women like a king with his harem, grabbing at them and grinding against them in between delivering the chorus. This kind of “dancing” — the kind that we would replicate at homecomings and proms throughout high school, then in nightclubs as adults — was all that we were taught.
It wasn’t unlike porn, where young boys were taught little about the power or respect that a woman could command, and everything about posturing for a camera. It was about mimicking real contact, and often about degradation. Any woman who has watched mainstream porn has understood that it is just as far removed from our real lives and bodies as those girls shaking in the videos — that the lessons they taught meant we would be left uncomfortable, or disappointed. When it came time to touch us in real life, how could we expect the boys raised on the videos they painstakingly downloaded to know what to do? They’d be just as oblivious about sex as they would be about dance, raised on the images of pantomimed pleasure that everyone assumed were real.
I remember the first time I danced with a man. I was 18, and a friend had brought me along to a swing dance at his tiny liberal arts college. I watched in awe as people moved with each other, mirror images of the other’s moves, depending on one another for the more complex stuff. He taught me the basics of the dance and, seven years later, I still look forward to my dance classes every week. It was a new world for me, one where “dancing” with someone required skill and respect and trust, and not just the ability to drunkenly close your eyes and rub your body parts against someone else’s. Whether dancing with an octogenarian or a teenager, every experience in partner dancing was full of nuance, laughter, and a deep sense of politeness.
When men first learn to partner dance, they are taught that above all, it is a man’s job to propose a move, and a woman’s to accept. She is never to be pulled, pushed, or moved in a way that she is uncomfortable with. (And if you get a reputation as an inconsiderate or pushy dancer, your time on the floor will be very limited.) Seeing grown men who were learning to really dance for the first time, who had to erase the concepts of “grinding” as movement and replace it with something delicate and measured, made it clear just how much damage we had already done as a society. Just the idea of “proposing” each movement and extended hand was foreign, let alone remaining a comfortable distance throughout an entire dance.
Even in undeniably flirtatious dances like salsa, the instruction on how to perform intimate moves in a way that measures your partner’s comfort is drilled into students. (You don’t touch her hair when you comb her, unless you know that she’s okay with it.) And these ideas of learning where you stand with each new partner, of turning dance into a way of communicating with a brand new person for each song, feel essential to human interaction, once you know them.
How wonderful would it be if every young boy was taught how to dance with a girl — to really dance, in an expressive and joyful way that responds differently to each song. Imagine if each boy was taught where to place his hand on a woman’s body to both guide and reassure her, and how to judge her level of acceptance to his movements. Imagine if, along with his education in dance, he was taught how to respect and listen to each partner, and how to make himself the kind of person that people flock to on a dance floor.
Imagine if we didn’t fear one another’s bodies the first time we clumsily came together in a middle school cafeteria, because we knew that our bodies were sacred and strong and wonderful for moving together to a thrilling song.
There would still be problems, miscommunications. There would still be hurt feelings and hurt bodies and people who cannot respect boundaries. But the concept — and deep appreciation — for the boundaries themselves would be well-instilled. Touching a woman with respect and compassion would be second nature. Learning to listen for and respond to “no, thank you,” would be just another class boys take, along with math and art. Set to music, we could teach boys how to move with a woman, and not against her.